Can Europe Make It?

Who’s afraid of the populist wolf?

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Populism may not be entirely coherent (what ideology is in its lived form?) but it has a consistent logic, and a line of distinction along which it treads that marks it out and accounts for its power. We should beware of falling into the many traps it creates for democrats.

Catherine Fieschi
25 June 2013

Pim Fortuyn, Beppo Grillo and Nigel Farage. Images (l-r): Wikimedia Commons/Roy Beusker, Wikimedia Commons/Niccolò Caranti (some rights reserved) and Demotix/Craig Shepheard.

Pim Fortuyn, Beppo Grillo and Nigel Farage. Images (l-r): Wikimedia Commons/Roy Beusker, Wikimedia Commons/Niccolò Caranti (some rights reserved) and Demotix/Craig Shepheard.

Philippe Marlière’s  recent article on populism is another thoughtful addition to the discussion, but some of its points concern me. The piece is an impeccable illustration of how populism works: as a political form, it can pull off that most mesmerising of tricks-- turning well-meaning democrats into its apologists.  By mining the field of democratic discourse – an already treacherous terrain - and leaving nowhere safe, nowhere real for the democrat to stand,  it manages to divide democrats against one another, the left and the right against themselves and, before you know it, a fight has broken out in which those who believe in the deeply pernicious effects of populism are labelled enemies of the people. 

While Marlière’s piece gives us food for thought, my sense is that it also falls into the two main traps that populism sets up.  The first is a trap specifically designed to discourage analysts; the second, is designed to bamboozle democrats. 

Don’t believe your eyes?

The first trap is the ‘mirage trap’: here, populism is made to appear as a figment of your imagination. This discourages unsuspecting researchers who are new to the hunt, by depicting the whole process of pinning populism down as a futile endeavour – there is nothing to catch. That feat is pulled off by, essentially, reducing analyses of populism to nothing.  Far from being useful frameworks through which to gradually interpret this complex phenomenon, the work is held up as nothing but the weak intellectual débris of a failed ideological expedition.   Attempts at definition are reduced to the status of musings and subtle distinctions swept aside as nit-picking.  Overall, the field is dismissed as at best ineffectual, and at worst the product of neo-liberal delusion.  But this work is neither undecipherable, useless nor pernicious.  It is meaningful and its very abundance could just as easily be testimony to the interest and urgency of the task. 

Populism’s ubiquity as a term is not the result of some residual demophobic instinct, but rather a reflection  of its ubiquity as a political form.  A set of technological, social and cultural transformations is creating pressures which, in a globalised world, are transmitted like ripples of various sizes across the globe. When finance is global, technology is global, media are global, and so are memes, slogans and images - political expressions are contagious.  True, the word can pop up in the media unreflectively. True, it is sometimes, infuriatingly, used as a synonym for ‘popular’. But overall, if it is used more, it is because this political form seems to be capturing a set of attitudes, modes of mobilisation, and indeed resentments that are being reproduced and politically exploited across the world, albeit with significant cultural differences, by a set of defined political actors.

Populism is a complex concept—and so the discussion around it reflects that complexity.  There are hesitations as to it status (back to an earlier point for instance, does it qualify as an ideology? Or is it a discourse? Or a style?) The role of leadership in populist movements is still hotly debated. As is its usefulness as a corrective to democracy.  And it is also true that there are many typologies out there. But they are typologies, or at least taxonomies, and not a random assortment of attributes.  Scholars may rank the characteristics differently, weighing them in relation to context, and they might even disagree as to the true nature of populism’s ‘heart’ (some think it has an empty heart and is merely a chameleon ideology). But the characteristics hang together in ways that, though not water-tight, are far less wishy-washy than Marlière makes out.

Most authors recognise that defining a political form (be it populism – or liberalism, or fascism, or pluralism) is like nailing jelly to a wall.  That doesn’t mean that these forms don’t exist; nor does it mean that the taxonomies are useless. 

And, over time, they have become more refined.  The past few years have, unfortunately, afforded us plenty of opportunities to be exposed to populism in its various forms. This has led to better definitions, better typologies and a measure, if not of complete clarity then, certainly, more assurance in the manner in which we approach the field and the phenomenon.  What counts as populism has become more defined, not less. But at the same time, it has spread, mutated, evolved and multiplied as mainstream parties have sought to emulate the more effective aspects of populist discourse (think of Sarkozy referring to the ‘scum’ who had rioted in Parisian suburbs or Labour’s  current ‘tough talk’ on immigration).

And while there is certainly demagoguery at work here (demagoguery is one of the many weapons in the arsenal of populist rhetoric), these cack-handed - though no less malign - elite attempts at populism actually fall short of some voters’ expectations.  The fact that populist parties continue to grow suggests that voters who are tempted by populism can tell the difference. They are, as it were, not yet falling for the mainstream’s masquerade. (See Counterpoint’s report Recapturing the reluctant radical for better strategies on how to win the reluctant radicals back to moderate politics).  These voters are unmistakeably wary of elite behaviour – and this is the crux of the problem.

Populism left and right

Populism’s defining feature is the pitting of the elite against the people. But this is far from a banal statement—elite is used as a blanket term, as is the ‘people’.  This results in a kind of ideological promiscuity.   The dividing line cuts across left and right.  This promiscuity is neither the result of some sort laziness on the part of analysts nor a symptom of ideological flimsiness.   Taking this as the sign of an inherent flightiness or inconstancy would be a grave mistake; the fact that the ‘populist’ label can be attached to movements that are ‘ideologically poles apart’, as Marlière points out, points to its true nature and ideological springs.  Specifically, that at the heart of its claims is the purported belief that the left/right distinction is not just useless, but an invention of elites created to throw ordinary people off the track of the real political game and hoodwink them into trusting representative institutions. 

Central to populism is an accusation that those institutions and groups organised along partisan lines are no more than a smokescreen for elite machinations, none of which, they would say, are remotely connected to left/right issues, or to the welfare of those who elected them.  The point for populists, is precisely that ‘they’ are ‘all the same’, and in it for themselves.

Whatever the academic discussions on definition, we know that populism picks its targets purposefully: the elite are seen as having betrayed the trust of the people, and the former are consistently depicted as usurpers.  This makes for quite a distinctive worldview; one in which no form of representation can be trusted; one in which a hunger for power, together with elite manipulations, are really the only driver of politics.  In its purest form, and in contrast to other ideologies, populism operates by picking out enemies simply on the basis of their involvement in the machinations, rather than according to any lines of ownership, education, relationship to progress, or society or history. 

That’s not to say that some populist movements won’t find themselves more or less on the right or the left of the political spectrum.  Another important feature such as nostalgia for instance might well fuel a mythical nationalism that smacks of the right. Or a nostalgia for an era of better state protection may well connect to leftist welfarism. But the point is that the claim to be on the people’s side has to trump all the others.  Populism may not be entirely coherent (what ideology in its lived form is?) but it has a logic, a line of distinction along which it treads, in rather consistent ways, that mark it out.  This line of distinction, and the very sweep of its application, accounts for its generative power.

What strikes me as an analyst of the form is that our understanding of populism improves when we start taking it seriously as an ideology, rather than confining ourselves to its study as a set of disparate movements or hazy discourses.  In typical academic fashion, claims that populism should count as an ideology have been muted—was it coherent enough, distinctive enough, independent enough to warrant this semantic promotion to the field of the ‘big guys’ alongside liberalism, Marxism or fascism? My sense is that when we take a step back and insist precisely on its sweep, populism qualifies more, not less, as a fully developed ideology with a set of ‘core features’ and then ‘secondary characteristics’ to borrow from Michael Freeden’s book.

A parasite on democracy

It also accounts for the second trap into which so many seem ready to fall: one that is effective because the roles attributed to the elite and the people in this populist narrative place populism in a close, yet paradoxical, relationship to democracy. 

I have written about this elsewhere, but the parasitic relationship between populism and democracy is worth evoking once again, because it is what is systematically instrumentalised by populists—and effectively so.

Because it draws its power from the fanning of a sentiment of betrayal of the democratic promise (broken by elites) - populism seems unable to exist in the absence of a measure of democracy.  A ‘wounded’ democracy, I would argue, is the context of choice for populism’s flourishing. 

Because of its claims to represent the people, because of its apparent commitment to take on the elite and speak ‘truth’ to power, because it refers to notions of democratic accountability, populism is deeply related to democracy. And yet we should not make mistake it for democracy—it is, as Margaret Canovan so aptly put it, something that grows ‘in the shade of democracy’, and that feeds off the dysfunctions of democracy, while rarely acting as the corrective which it claims to be.

This relationship to democracy is what affords populists their best line of defence against their enemies: it fuels claims such as Marlière’s - but also made by many others - that those who take on populism as a negative political force are really just demophobes denying ordinary people their right to be heard. 

The accusation comes up again and again: if you’re so committed to democracy, why be so down on populism?  Why will you not listen to ordinary people?  There are many responses one might make to this accusation. The first of which is that listening is important, but engaging is more so.  Is it not far more insulting to an ordinary, preoccupied voter to be faced with a political or intellectual elite that doesn’t even bother to engage in debate for the sake of being seen to acquiesce with half-baked demands?  Where is the respect for people in not even bothering to point out ill-informed opinion, or misguided reasoning?  Isn’t there a responsibility on the part of the privileged, the less vulnerable, those who have the good fortune of time to push back for the sake of more a more informed political debate, of more informed political choice regardless of what that choice is in the end?  Is there not a duty to guard against lines of argument or expedient policy choices that, if and when pursued to their logical conclusion, could go against one’s best interest or in the interest of another, perhaps even less accountable, elite?  Surely it is the worst kind of demagoguery and condescension - and anathema to democratic deliberation - to kowtow to anyone on the basis that it’s not worth presenting them with complex arguments because they are ordinary.   If anything, our voices have been too soft, too sparse because of the pervasive fear of being labelled elitist, demophobes, enemies of the people.  Enough---let’s take responsibility, I for one am tired of having to defend myself against accusations of elitism when I argue that increased levels of education and better access can result in fewer people voting for the FN.   The populists win if this sort of claim has to be shelved in order to be a friend of the people.  A fine democracy indeed.

But my point here is that creating divisions of this kind is precisely what populism is good at, and what it aims to do – create discord amongst democrats and let them undermine the form for you.  Why sweat it when you can get someone else to do your bidding on how dysfunctional and corrupt the current system and its apologists are?

By levelling the accusations it does at elites, populist discourse is extraordinarily effective at entrapping even the most well-meaning of us: disagree and you are nothing but a demophobe; agree and you join their ranks or help their cause.  This is the politics of Salem, and democrats would do well to avoid it.


This article is part of an editorial partnership with Counterpoint, which was launched in November 2012. See the other excerpts from the Reluctant Radicals partnership.

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